VC Brigety talks leadership during and after the pandemic

By Amelia Leaphart 
Executive Staff

The pandemic dominates almost every decision Americans are making right now. However, the current issues with an opened campus during a pandemic cannot prevent Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety from planning Sewanee’s future outside the lens of COVID. On August 18, Brigety held a live-streamed event from All Saints’ Chapel where he alluded to four themes for Sewanee’s goals for the next six years: educational preeminence, diversity, Sewanee’s global place, and enhancements on the Domain. 

Discussions about Sewanee’s future began with the Vice-Chancellor search process, and included calls with alumni, faculty, and students of various organizations. 

“I began by talking about four pillars,” Brigety said, “I’ve been convinced that we also need to add a fifth that deals with wellness.”

Brigety hopes to address healthy lifestyle choices, from nutrition to substance use, to mental health, to relationships, and focus on issues with sexual assault on campus. 

“We need to ask more questions about what we can do,” Brigety said.

When he was interviewed for the Vice-Chancellor position, he was asked about what he thinks the future of Sewanee should be. 

“Sewanee was ranked 43 in the US News and Global Reports for liberal arts colleges. That’s a dangerous place to be,” Brigety said.

Brigety cites this ranking as “dangerous” due to future demographic changes in the applicant pool, citing that by 2026, the group of college-aged young people are estimated to be 14-20 percent smaller and more diverse than previous years. 

“If we see ourselves attracting the best students, not only from the South but from across the country and many from around the world, we simply have to be a place where they can see themselves fitting and flourishing academically,” Brigety said.

Attracting the best students with a continued focus on education also requires a focus on ameliorating Sewanee’s lack of diversity. 

“We will be a majority minority country by mid-century,” Brigety said, “and the south is already one of the more diverse regions in the country. Yet withstanding that, the University remains 86 percent white. The two best schools in our cohort, Amherst and Williams, are at almost half with white and non-white students.” 

Sewanee often compares itself to Davidson College in North Carolina, which is 32 percent non-white. 

Brigety questioned why many students of color are not coming to Sewanee, and said that the argument that many diverse applicants are not qualified to attend breaks down due to rates at other American liberal arts colleges. 

“We need to intentionally ask ourselves what we can do to invite and retain students of color here,” Brigety said.

Brigety also argued that having so few students of color on-campus acts as a disservice to white students. 

“You all are in this precious time in your young life where you’re forming deep friendships, understanding who you are, and learning about the world. Not having more people who have profound experiences related to their identity that are different from the majority of those on campus deprives them of dialogue, learning, and understanding,”  Brigety said.

Expanding Sewanee’s students’ minds cross-culturally intersects with Brigety’s goals of elevating Sewanee’s global place as a hub for intellectual and cultural activities. Because of Sewanee’s 13,000 acres with its geographically advantageous position between Chattanooga, Nashville, and Atlanta, Brigety believes Sewanee’s future could be compatible with Sedona, Arizona or Aspen, Colorado. 

“I don’t want to presume the outcome to any of these pillars, but there are some things I can reasonably think about. We have this amazing airport, which is an almost unique asset among liberal arts colleges. We just need to figure out how to use it for education and having more people come visit us,” Brigety said. 

Brigety also highlighted how his suggestions are not a criticism of those who came before, “but with new leadership comes a new perspective. And times change.”

Brigety clarified that Sewanee can’t focus on many of these issues until, “we are free and clear of this pandemic. The thing that will separate some colleges from others is whether they could have residential, in-person learning.”

Sewanee’s ability to sustain on-campus learning could elevate Sewanee in future applicants’ minds. 

However, Brigety cited financial obstacles as the main inhibitor to any plans.

“We are blessed compared to many places with loyal and supportive alumni. But this is the most challenging economic year we’ve had since the Great Depression. Many families are having to reevaluate the cost of higher-education,” Brigety said.

Brigety expressed appreciation for the Sewanee community’s effusion for the school, but he often feels that people can “profess a desire for progress while being resistant to change.” 

He also referenced his surprise at the level of resistance and anger at his proposed drug policy. This opposition underlines a discord between Sewanee’s thoughts on addressing substance abuse on campus between different facets of the community. Many young women wrote to Brigety asking for a zero-tolerance policy, as sexual assault is often correlated to substance abuse. 

“I am often told that Sewanee is a family. In families we have to have difficult conversations sometimes, and this is an important one for us to have,” Brigety said. 

Thus, changes in leadership require changes in an institution, and Vice-Chancellor Brigety hopes to  create a community that fosters inclusive dialogue while utilizing his perspective to improve Sewanee for future students, faculty, and staff.